UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with the governments of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), had helped nearly 6 000 Congolese refugees to return home since December 2021, the agency said this week.
The refugees fled political and inter-ethnic clashes in the DRC’s south-east region in 2017 and found safety in Zambia.
They expressed excitement and joy at returning home and reuniting with family and friends and starting their lives anew, said the agency.
Refugees were issued with voluntary repatriation documents and received expedited immigration clearance, health screening, security, food and water before their return, it said. Nearly 60% of the refugees were children.
Children born in Zambia were issued birth certificates as proof of their identity.
The Ministry of Education issued transfer documents to schoolchildren, enabling them to continue their education in the DRC.
Those with special needs were supported by caregivers from Zambia’s Ministry of Community Development and Social Services to ensure they travelled in safety and dignity.
Voluntary repatriation of refugees from Mantapala settlement in Luapula province to Pweto in Haut-Katanga province in DRC began in December 2021. The refugees have been transported on buses in weekly convoys of approximately 600 people to the Lunkinda border post. While parts of the country remain highly insecure, other regions like Haut-Katanga have been stable, allowing for the returns.
More than 11 000 Congolese refugees are registered to go back to DRC by the end of 2022 following the declaration of improved security in some areas of Haut-Katanga province.
At a UNHCR transit centre in Pweto (DRC), where the returning refugees are accommodated for two days, Congolese authorities issue documentation, including birth certificates for newborn babies and school certificates, to allow them to quickly integrate and access services. UNHCR’s health partner also conducts medical screening and cases with special needs receive basic treatment.
Refugees also receive cash to help cover basic expenses upon their arrival home. This covers transport to their destination, hygiene and household items, and initial rent assistance. Based on family size, they also receive a month’s supply of pulses, maize meal, oil and salt.
Additional reintegration assistance, such as helping children to enrol at school, is also provided.
The UNHCR said it would continue to advocate with the government of the DRC and traditional authorities for the enrolment of children in schools, security, access to employment and provision of key civil documentation.
The voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees is being conducted on the basis of a agreement signed in 2006 by the UNHCR and the governments of Zambia and the DRC.
More than 18 000 Congolese have lived in Mantapala settlement, where they acquired livelihood skills, including farming, carpentry and artisan crafts.
According to a countrywide verification exercise, Zambia still hosts 95 677 refugees, asylum-seekers and former refugees. These include 60 236 from DRC. Nearly a million Congolese refugees are still hosted in neighbouring countries.
The agency said millions of refugees dreamt of going home in safety and dignity. However, voluntary repatriation required a commitment by the country of origin to help reintegrate its own people and the continuing support of the international community.